For a long time, I wanted to write an article titled "Why I Kill." This is about why I didn't.
When I lived in Vermont, my husband and I went in with some
neighbors to raise and slaughter a hundred Thanksgiving
turkeys. I had been vegetarian since I was a child, because I loved
animals, but now, as an adult, I wanted to find out if humane meat was
possible. I planned to write the article after we were done, explaining why I chose to kill the animals I ate.
All my life, when I have thought about meat, I've
been very aware that it entails the death of a sentient being. That torn flesh and guts come with this. In that sense, I had always lived
intimately with the gory reality of meat, so it didn't seem like such a
huge step to become physically involved with it. Also, I'm
constitutionally not squeamish; blood has never bothered me. So I knew I
could do it. Some meat eaters who were my partners in this venture
laughed, saying I'd run crying out of the room at slaughter time.
In reality, when that night came it was not me but one of
them—new to farming and apparently new to the idea of all it
entails—who couldn't take it and had to leave.
On many small farms that advertise humane meat, at slaughter time,
turkeys are stuffed upside down into "kill cones," with their heads
sticking out the bottom, so they're restrained while their throats are
slit. This is necessary because otherwise they flap their wings and
struggle powerfully as they feel life leaving them. It takes a while. Of
particular concern to farmers is that this wing-flapping can leave
unsightly bruises on the carcass.
have kill cones, and had planned to restrain the turkeys with burlap
sacks, but the birds were so strong that the sacks ripped immediately.
So it became my job to wrap my arms around their bodies and keep them
still as they hung upside down, bleeding out.
In a way I wish I
could say that, like the squeamish meat-eater, I felt disgusted, or
cried afterwards, thinking about what the birds must have been feeling.
But I didn't. I knew exactly what I was getting into when I started.
Maybe my crime was worse for that.
It's not that it didn't affect me. At the
time, my infant son weighed about as much the turkeys (and, like them,
was a few months old), and at night, lying next to him, I woke several
times with a jolt, out of half-dreams that I had accidentally put him
into the oven instead of a turkey. There was no guilt or sadness for the
turkeys attached to these half-dreams, just fear for my son. There was
the shock of wrongness too, of having crossed a line, broken a taboo,
crossed out of the realm of the okay into some terrible other place.
But I was not in that terrible other place in reality. My son stayed
out of the oven. I only killed the creatures who were supposed to be
A few days later, when I got my hair cut, the
hairdresser in our tiny rural town asked how it had been, slaughtering all
those turkeys. "It really wasn't that bad," I told her. She laughed and
said, "Yeah, bet you didn't feel a thing." I had the feeling it was an
old, familiar joke to her. We lived among hunters and farmers; her
husband hunted, and was teaching their son to do it. I laughed too,
recognizing the absurdity, but, as with the oven dreams, not feeling any
real sense of guilt or sadness over it. I certainly wasn't asked to
feel those things by anyone I met. Most people gave us the sense we'd
done something good in the world, had come down on the side of morality:
raising the turkeys in big pastures, where they tussled over crab
apples, socialized, enjoyed the sun. We all agreed factory farming was
bad, and our aim had been to do something different, better and kinder.
I thought afterwards that we had cause to feel good about it. We'd gone
through with what we planned. None of the messy business of butchering
had even bothered me: plucking feathers, pulling out guts, cutting up
body parts. I wondered, as I did it, if I were deficient in some
way, so little did it disturb me. I watched many of the local kids who came to help us—sons of farmers and hunters—fight their fear and squeamishness. Most people I knew couldn't even bear to hear me describe the process. But they were happy to eat the turkeys if they didn't have to think about it.
One thing did stay with
me. As I played the part of a kill cone, my arms wrapped around those
big bodies, holding the powerful wings closed as the warm, gentle birds
struggled against death (what's the point of struggling when your throat
is slit all the way across and all your blood is pouring down in two
jets over your face to the ground? the futility of this struck me), I
felt how how very much they did not want to let go of life.
your body is pressed against another body, it leaves something with
you. I felt how their lives were sacred, and we were taking them away.
At the time, it seemed a good thing that I had felt this. To have felt
it was to have earned the meat I ate that Thanksgiving--after not eating
any meat at all for over 25 years. I had honored the birds by feeling
it. By helping to raise them and by experiencing their death along with them.
I didn't become vegan or even vegetarian again immediately after that,
although I decided I would only eat animals I myself had raised. I killed several chickens over the next few months. But I lost the desire to write the article. I didn't want to keep killing. Over the next few years, the
experience with the turkeys continued to work its way deeper into my soul.
I could kill. I
had done it. I could close myself off to the horror of the blood and
guts. But I had recognized and felt,
next to my body, on my skin, inside myself, in some blunt way, the
sacredness of life.
Having felt the birds struggle, I had to
recognize that taking a life is a big deal. Dying is a big deal. For animals, as for us—as we all know if we have been with a beloved dog or
cat at their deathbed. It sounds so simple as hardly to be worth saying.
And it is. But I knew it then, in a way I hadn't before. Or maybe I was
forced to recognize that I had always known it.
I saw that
while I was free not to honor that knowledge, free to kill and eat any
creature I wanted, as long as they were members of species our culture
deems killable and edible, I was also free not to.
What is legal and sanctioned, even by
our heroes, our parents, our religious leaders, is not always the same
as what is moral. Many of the
greatest crimes in history have been legal and socially sanctioned:
slavery, the actions of the Nazis, and countless other forms of rape,
subjugation, genocide and torture. And although these are moral crimes, those who are able to commit them outnumber those who stand against them.
This is not something that was only true long ago,
when people were misguided, or is still true but only for people who are
obtuse and different from us. It is true now and here and always. And
alongside that rests the truth that we are given the freedom and the
responsibility to decide for ourselves what is moral, what widens our
circles of mercy and compassion, what nudges our world away from
suffering and towards love.
The only way to do this is to look
with our own eyes, and feel with our own hearts. If you kill an animal,
or even watch a video of one being killed, and feel violence is being done,
feel sadness or compassion for the creature being deprived of his or her
life—or if you can't even watch because you are afraid you'll feel
those things—then listen to that. Honor that. You can. You're free to